Sunday, March 31, 2013

Otis and the Puppy by Loren Long {The Children's Bookshelf}

This morning I had one of those heartswell moments as a parent. You know the kind - the ones that get you through years of early morning wake-ups, dirty diapers, tantrums in the grocery store, and all the other not-so-awesome episodes in the life of a mom or dad. These are the moments you live for, that you wish you could just capture for all time.

Being Easter morning, Sprout was awake just after dawn, and snuggled with me for a few minutes speculating on what the day would bring. When I reminded him about the Easter Bunny, he tore off down the hallway to see what goodies were left behind. We're not big on candy for the holiday, but we did get him a chocolate bunny plus a bucket with some small cars and Spiderman action figures. But what was the first thing he retrieved? His book - namely the newest Otis adventure from Loren Long, Otis and the Puppy. Sprout came racing into our room, squealing at the top of his lungs, "It's Otis and the Puppy, Mommy! How did the Easter Bunny know I wanted this book SO SO much??!?"

If you haven't read the Otis books, you must check them out. Really. This is the kind of literature that sticks with kids forever, "instant classics", to use a very well-worn phrase. The plots are relatable, the stories just the right length to read at bedtime, and Otis is a character kids will instantly love. We've so enjoyed the first book, Otis, and the sequel, Otis and the Tornado. And this new addition to the series is no exception.

This time around, Otis has a new friend in the form of a puppy the farmer delivers to the barn one night. Otis and the puppy bond right away, when Otis braves the darkness and invites the puppy to leave the cold doghouse and join him in the barn. And the puppy loves to play games with Otis and the farm animals, especially hide-and-seek. But one day the puppy gets distracted by a butterfly, and while Otis is finding all the other animals, the puppy wanders further and further away. Pretty soon it's clear that the puppy is lost. The farmer and the animals, and Otis of course, search everywhere to no avail. At last it grows dark and the farmer calls off the search for the night - but Otis knows his new friend is out there, and scared, so he musters up all his courage and sets out into the dark on his own to find the puppy.

As with the other Otis titles, Otis and the Puppy wraps up with an ending that hits all the right notes. But for us, the real thrill about this one comes in the illustrations. Oh my heavens, is Loren Long ever a master of his craft, a real storyteller not only through the written word but also through his amazing pictures. The palette here is slightly darker than the previous Otis books, as you might expect for a story that's all about bravery and facing your fears, which in Otis's case means the darkness. And the interplay of light and dark, of shade and shadow, that Long creates is really spectacular. I just about can't pick a favorite spread, but one of the best for me shows shadowy trees, with an owl and squirrel in silhouette, and the beam of Otis's headlight casting just enough light to make out his cheery red paint. Gorgeousness.

The Easter Bunny absolutely scored a home run with this gift. I want to be clear about something -- Sprout's not some kind of crazy kid who only ever wants books and not toys (that would have been me growing up). But he knows what he likes, and he likes Otis. So the sight of this much-coveted title next to his Easter basket just about made his holiday. And as a book-loving mama, it pretty much made mine too.

Otis and the Puppy by Loren Long, published by Philomel
All ages
Source: personal collection
Sample: "One evening, the farmer gathered everyone up in front of the barn and gently placed a burlap sack on the ground. The sack began to wobble, tumble, and roll. It sat up, stretched to the sky, and went Arrhhr. . . arrhhr. . . arrhf!. What could be in there?"
Highly recommended

This post is part of The Children’s Bookshelf, a weekly linky party with the goal of connecting parents with great books for their kids. Do you have a book review, literacy or book-related post that you think will be helpful for parents? If so, please add your link below.

NOTE: By linking up you are giving permission for any of the co-hosts to pin and/or feature a your photo on a future The Children’s Bookshelf post. Kindly link up to an individual post, not your blog’s homepage. The hosts reserve the right to delete any links to homepages, commercial links, repeat links or otherwise inappropriate links. Thank you for your understanding.

You can also follow The Children’s Bookshelf on Pinterest or visit TCB’s co-hosts: Sprout’s Bookshelf, What Do We Do All Day?, No Twiddle Twaddle, Smiling Like Sunshine, My Little Bookcase, The Picture Book ReviewMemeTales and Mouse Grows, Mouse Learns. You can find more details here.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Picture Book Review - The Quiet Place by Sarah Stewart

Once in a while you find a book that hits on all the right notes: gorgeous to look at, spectacularly written, sensitive, thoughtful and one your kiddo wants to hear over and over. It's rare, this type of book, I'm not going to kid you. It's especially rare to find one that fits the last criterion. Sprout tends to focus on books that are really energetic and lively, which is great of course, but doesn't always make for the most impactful choice.

And so it surprised me when he became especially taken with a book by one of my favorite author-illustrator duos, Sarah Stewart and David Small. Both have received numerous accolades for their work, together and separately. David Small's graphic memoir Stitches was a selection we read in my teen lit class last semester and it is probably the one that I found most haunting and memorable. And I've adored Sarah Stewart's body of work for a long time, so a new picture book from her was definitely going on my TBR list. But when I brought it home, Sprout seized it out of my read-and-review pile and appropriated it for bedtime reading almost immediately.

The Quiet Place is a story of immigration, of change and finding oneself in a world that's far from the familiar. Told through letters from Isabel to her Auntie Lupita back home in Mexico, the story begins with the illustrations - the opening endpapers show the family preparing to leave and then driving away from their village home. The first letter just after Isabel's family has crossed the border, and it's her first letter using the English words she's learned from Aunt Lupita. As we follow Isabel's story, we learn more of the things she misses, and of the new things she's discovering in this foreign life -- snow, for instance, a bright spot in the otherwise colorless world that seems to be Isabel's now.

Isabel yearns for a place that is her own, a quiet place, and her resourceful nature helps her come up with the perfect solution to make a retreat when she needs one. And gradually, bit by bit, Isabel finds that there is value not only in quiet, but in laughter and music and dancing and noise and life, the bursting new life that seems to be flowering all around her, almost without her notice. Though she misses Aunt Lupita fiercely, by the end of the book we know that Isabel will make her own way in America, and that the lives of those she meets will be all the richer for it.

I love this book, not only because of its theme but because of the perfect symbiosis between picture and story. In the best picture books, you cannot separate the two forms of art without a loss to the tale they are telling, and that's certainly the case here. What Stewart's perfectly chosen words hint at, Small's nuanced illustrations embody, and vice versa. Isabel as a character comes alive through the missives she pens to her aunt, but what she doesn't write down is ours to peek into anyway -- her reticence to join in a birthday part, her wistfulness while watching Fourth of July fireworks. Though her heart is always partly home in Mexico, Isabel's joy slowly comes alive in her new home, which is a thrill to witness.

Though I'm sure most of the deeper themes about immigration and identity went right past my almost-four-year-old, Sprout displayed a real sensitivity toward this book. And therein lies a lesson, my friends -- don't hold back the good stuff from your little ones just because you think they aren't ready. They are often old souls, our children, and fine books like The Quiet Place may touch them deeply in a place even their parents cannot entirely understand.

The Quiet Place by Sarah Stewart, published by Farrar Straus Giroux
Ages 4-10
Source: Library
Sample: "The spots on this letter are from my tears. A big storm blew across Lake Michigan yesterday. I had left my box outside and the rain ruined it. So many new things are in my life, not just new words but new people and new places. I loved how safe I felt in that box! Mother is letting me write this letter under the kitchen table. It isn't the same."

Bonus: interview with Sarah Stewart and David Small about the inspiration for The Quiet Place

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Easy Reader Review - Ready? Set. Raymond! by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

"Mom, I want that one book, you know that one."

"Kiddo, you need to be more specific."

"That one I like so much, Mom. That one with the boy, and he's always running everywhere."

"Um -- is it this one?" (holding up Ready? Set. Raymond!)

"That's what I said, Mom." (delivered with just a hint of "duh, how could you not know that?")

The above is a transcript of an honest-to-goodness conversation I had with Sprout the other night. Every night's an adventure picking out books, mostly because we always have a lot to choose from, with overflowing bookshelves and a basket full of library selections. But sometimes it's even more so, as I play guess-the-plot with him while he gets impatient waiting for me to figure out what he's asking for. (And at the end of a long day, let's just say sometimes even the obvious choice doesn't come easily to me!)

Here lately he's been quite attached to Vaunda Micheaux Nelson's easy reader Ready? Set. Raymond!. And I can absolutely see why - from the first peek at that cover, with its appealingly active hero rendered by illustrator Derek Anderson, readers know this is going to be a lively one. Inside we've got three short stories featuring Raymond's exploits; this is done much like other beginner books, where you could read each story on its own or all three together. We always go for the gusto and read the whole thing, because Raymond's so fun to root for.

Nelson knows what boys are made of, and she shows off that knowledge in Raymond, who's somewhat of a perpetual motion machine. For example, in the first story, Raymond's running through his day, despite everyone telling him to slow down. He even falls asleep fast -- a plot point which totally reminds me of Sprout, who drops off so quickly any more that he's often in the middle of a sentence. The other two stories have Raymond meeting a new friend and competing  in a race (will he dare to get his new sneakers dirty?!).

These simple plots are just right for readers getting to know their way around a story, and the large format illustrations help set off the print and draw beginners through the text. I love that Raymond's always wearing a t-shirt with some sort of emblem on it -- a whirlwind in one, a lightning bolt in another. Raymond's a guy who's going places, that's for sure. I also love a story where the white characters are background filler for once. Such a refreshing change from what we usually see in books for this age range, where the characters with brown skin so often feel like an afterthought!

Unfortunately there appears to be only one outing with Raymond, which is really too bad as it's an outstanding book for lots of reasons. Ready? Set. Raymond! came out in 2002 from Random House, and I for one would love to see another title by Ms. Nelson in this series, should she ever have the opportunity to publish one. But for now, I'll be bookmarking Raymond on my library list and looking for a copy to add to Sprout's shelves -- this is one character who's absolutely worth chasing down.

Ready? Set. Raymond! by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, published by Random House
Ages 3-7
Source: Library
Sample: "Raymond does things fast. / He brushes his teeth fast. He eats breakfast fast. / 'Slow down, Raymond. Chew your food,' Mama says. Raymond slows down -- but not for long!"

Bonus: Interview with Vaunda Micheaux Nelson at The Brown Bookshelf

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Back to Front and Upside Down by Claire Alexander {The Children's Bookshelf}

Do you follow the awards circuit? I have to admit that when it comes to movies and tv shows, I'm often not especially fond of the ones that win all the major awards (though this may be down to the fact that now I'm a mom, there's precious little time to watch anything at all!). But when it comes to books I am glued to the awards and best-of lists. This is partly because I want to see my favorites win (alas, my pick didn't take the Caldecott or even an honor this year - sob!). But it's also because there are so many new books coming out each year that it's impossible to see them all, and the awards help me get a bead on some titles that flew under my radar.

Such is the case with Claire Alexander's Schneider Award winner Back to Front and Upside Down! The Schneider is one of my favorites of the ALA Awards - each year it is given to a book that best exemplifies the experience of a person with a disability. If you want to teach your kids about persons of varying abilities, this is an excellent list of titles to begin the discussion. Alexander's title won in the picture book division, and one read-through shows you exactly why, as it deals with the subject of dyslexia and dysgraphia in a sensitive manner that's spot on for her audience.

Stan is excited to be making a birthday card for his principal, Mr. Slippers. That is, until the teacher announces the students must write "Happy Birthday to Mr. Slippers" on their card. Stan panics. No matter how hard he tries, his letters don't come out the way everyone else's do. Instead, Stan's are a jumble, and some don't even look like letters! As he watches all the other children finishing their cards, with what looks like no effort at all, Stan gets more and more upset. Fortunately his friend convinces Stan to ask the teacher for help - and once he screws up his courage and does it, Stan discovers he isn't alone.

Sprout loves the part where Stan and Mimi practice their letters over and over, until they get them right. We're at the stage with him where he's just starting to string his name together, and some letters are giving him trouble, so I think he relates to how Stan feels. We work on writing the individual letters, on perfecting our fine motor skills and learning how to hold the pencil. But it's tough work, and Sprout knows the frustration Alexander depicts in her book - he's sensitive to the isolation Stan feels, I think, because other kids in his class are writing their names already, while Sprout isn't quite yet.

Readers who've felt the isolation of thinking you're the only one who can't do something the right way will instantly identify with Stan's struggle. But kids who haven't felt that way -- yet -- will connect with this one too, because of the way Alexander's text draws the reader into the emotional component of this experience. One spread in particular does this best - Stan, all alone at his desk, small against a black background. The power of this single image alone is palpable, and makes the resolution, where Stan triumphantly presents Mr. Slippers with his completed card, all the more worthwhile.

Back to Front and Upside Down! by Claire Alexander, Eerdman's Books for Young Readers
Ages 3-5
Source: Library
Sample: "Stan looked at Jack. He was busy writing his card. He looked at Lucy. She was writing her card too. Tommy had finished and was writing his name! Stan's paws began to sweat and his heart pounded loudly in his chest."

This post is part of The Children’s Bookshelf, a weekly linky party with the goal of connecting parents with great books for their kids. Do you have a book review, literacy or book-related post that you think will be helpful for parents? If so, please add your link below.

NOTE: By linking up you are giving permission for any of the co-hosts to pin and/or feature a your photo on a future The Children’s Bookshelf post. Kindly link up to an individual post, not your blog’s homepage. The hosts reserve the right to delete any links to homepages, commercial links, repeat links or otherwise inappropriate links. Thank you for your understanding.

You can also follow The Children’s Bookshelf on Pinterest or visit TCB’s co-hosts: Sprout’s Bookshelf, What Do We Do All Day?, No Twiddle Twaddle, Smiling Like Sunshine, My Little Bookcase, The Picture Book ReviewMemeTales and Mouse Grows, Mouse Learns. You can find more details here.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Gingerbread on the Loose!

A few months back we participated in the Cinderella Around the World roundup sponsored by the amazing Becky of Kid World Citizen. It was really interesting to see all the posts with different versions of the Cinderella tale from all around the globe. And now Becky's dreamed up a new project in the form of The Gingerbread Man Around the World.

You may not know it but the traditional story "The Gingerbread Man" is a cumulative tale, versions of which are found in many cultures. The common threads are found in each retelling: some form of runaway food that several people (or animals) pursue unsuccessfully until someone comes up with a clever solution. In the tale most are familiar with, the runaway Gingerbread Man is outfoxed, literally, by a clever fox who persuades the cookie that jumping up on the fox's head is the way to safety -- and of course the fox can't help but gobble the cookie up!

It's fun to look at all the examples of this story that come up, and how the same themes repeat themselves in new and different ways. There are a number of modern versions that present the story with interesting twists and variable settings. One of our favorites, Gingerbread Man Loose in the School, was inspired by an activity that a former teacher used to do with her new students at the beginning of the year (we still love to check this one out whenever we see it in the library). And in the process of researching this topic we read a whole lot more versions -- you might be surprised how many turn up in just a quick search!

So I consulted my resident expert, and being a three-and-a-half year-old, Sprout had very definite choices. His first pick is Jan Brett's Gingerbread Baby. This is a pretty standard rendition of the story, brought to life with Brett's signature intricate and absorbing illustrative style. In this version young Matti opens the oven too soon and an impudent little Gingerbread Baby jumps out. Of course he leads the whole village on a merry chase, but Matti's not among the pursuers - instead he's home crafting a solution to the problem that is quite a surprise to all, especially the Gingerbread Baby! It's hard not to be enchanted by one of Jan Brett's stories and this tale is no exception. If you're looking for something traditional with just a bit of a new twist, Gingerbread Baby fits the bill nicely.

On to Sprout's second favorite, The Gingerbread Girl by Lisa Campbell Ernst. This story takes up where the Gingerbread Man tale left off, with the old couple who crafted the cookie still in search of companionship. This time, they figure, they'll create a girl - now what could go wrong there? Well, as you might expect, the female cookie is no more willing to obey, and she's off and running in no time flat. But this Gingerbread Girl knows what happened to her brother, and she's out to fix the fox that got him. Sweet and spicy, with illustrations as tempting as the cookie that inspired the story, The Gingerbread Girl captures the spirit of the familiar story in a modern retelling that kids will adore. Love the rhymes in this one, too! (Now we need to check out the sequel, The Gingerbread Girl Goes Animal Crackers!)

It might surprise you to learn that Mom's favorite of the Gingerbread books was Sprout's favorite too -- The Library Gingerbread Man by Dotti Enderle. I'm a sucker for any book that takes place in or around a library, so naturally I had to check this one out. (Get it? Library humor!) And this was the one Sprout asked for again and again at bedtime. In this tale, our errant hero leaps out of a book living on the library shelf (call number 398.2). Though the librarian tries to catch him, she can't, and neither can all the other literary and historical characters who jump out of their own books in hot pursuit. Sprout was tickled by the setting in the library, and he loved seeing which animals or people would be the next to join the chase. The rhyme is a take on the traditional one, and the illustrations by Colleen M. Madden are jovial like the Gingerbread Man himself. And how can you not love a book with the line, "It is particularly hard to outsmart a librarian"??!?

If you want to liven up your storytime, consider a trip around the world with these or any of the other Gingerbread Man tales -- but you better run, because if there's one thing these tales have in common, it's that catching them is hard to do!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Island Baby by Holly Keller {The Children's Bookshelf}

Confession time: we love us some vacation around the Kinser household. Really love it. Some days the thought that we have vacation time coming up is the only thing that gets us through all we have to take care of. And when we don't have a vacation planned, we love to dream about where we want to go next -- and get a little twitchy if there's nothing on the horizon. (We love to travel so much that Hubs even has a blog all about accessible options for wheelchair travelers.)

One way we dream about vacation, of course, is through the books we read. I purposely try to seek out stories for Sprout that come from all over the globe. I do that not just because we feel it's important to expose him to a range of cultures but also because we like to imagine ourselves visiting all these far-flung places. And armchair travel via picture books? Kind of the best bedtime adventure ever!

A recent literary trip we've been indulging in takes us to the Caribbean, to an island lush with palm trees, flowers and gorgeous birds everywhere. Island Baby is an older title by Holly Keller, one we were fortunate to discover -- where else? -- through our library. There's so much that's great about this book: its vivid, Caribbean-infused color palette, the simple illustrative style, and its themes of intergenerational relationships and helpfulness to others. It's the kind of book that sneaks up on you with its quiet grace, and that communicates deep truths in subtle ways.

Simon's grandfather runs a bird hospital on the little island where they live. Simon loves to help Pops with the birds; he's good at his jobs and he enjoys feeling like he's not only helping the birds but his beloved grandfather as well. Because of his knowledge, when Simon sees a young bird struggling in the water, waves pushing it against the rocks, Simon can't bring himself to just walk away. Fortunately Pops comes to the rescue with a net, and the two capture the little one and bring him to the hospital. Simon names the bird Baby, caring for his flamingo friend tenderly until at last it's time to set Baby free. It's not easy for Simon -- he can't imagine leaving his friend -- but the feeling of pride Simon takes away, as he watches a flock of flamingos take flight, eases the pain just enough.

There's an easy grace to this book that makes its impact that much more significant; Keller's sensitive understanding of a young child's complex feelings is evident in her prose. The first time we read this, we closed the cover and just sat for a moment, then Sprout asked to hear it again. And I suspect that's the sort of reaction that keeps this gem on the library shelf (you may have to look at a used bookstore to find your own copy). Because the books that make us think, about our relationship to one another as well as to the natural world, are the books that linger with us, don't you find?

We may have opened this book because we wanted to dream of beautiful islands, but we took away so much more than just an escape. At the end, as we mourn with Simon the loss of his friend, we also share his joy at a life saved and made whole. And that's a takeaway that makes this island dream even more magical.

Island Baby by Holly Keller, published by Greenwillow Books
Ages 3-6
Source: Library
First lines: "Pops poured a mug of juice for Simon and one for himself. Then they sat on the front steps without talking and watched the sea."

Bonus: an interview with Holly Keller from the Cooperative Children's Book Center

This post is part of The Children’s Bookshelf, a weekly linky party with the goal of connecting parents with great books for their kids. Do you have a book review, literacy or book-related post that you think will be helpful for parents? If so, please add your link below.

NOTE: By linking up you are giving permission for any of the co-hosts to pin and/or feature a your photo on a future The Children’s Bookshelf post. Kindly link up to an individual post, not your blog’s homepage. The hosts reserve the right to delete any links to homepages, commercial links, repeat links or otherwise inappropriate links. Thank you for your understanding.

You can also follow The Children’s Bookshelf on Pinterest or visit TCB’s co-hosts: Sprout’s Bookshelf, What Do We Do All Day?, No Twiddle Twaddle, Smiling Like Sunshine, My Little Bookcase, The Picture Book ReviewMemeTales and Mouse Grows, Mouse Learns. You can find more details here.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Chapter Book Review - Navigating Early by Claire Vanderpool

Happy Pi Day! Yep, that's right - it's 3/14, also written as 3.14, which is of course the beginning sequence of that famously irrational number itself, pi. Every year this day sneaks up on me, which is kind of ironic since it's always the same date. But anyhoo, I always remember too late to do something special.

Luckily this year, however, I just finished reading a book that ties into Pi Day perfectly: the new novel by Newbery Medalist Claire Vanderpool, author of the incredible historical Moon Over Manifest. This new outing is also a historical, one that is similar in some ways to her award-winning debut but different enough to stand all on its own. Navigating Early is a wild ride of a novel, full of meditations on loss and loneliness, friendship and the power of belief. Yet it's not an introspective read -- this is a book about adventure and exploration, with plenty of action to keep the plot moving along.

It starts quietly, with Jack Baker, who has moved to Maine from Kansas after the death of his mother. Jack's father, a military man, is at loose ends with the loss of his wife, so he decides a boarding school is the best solution for Jack. And so the boy enters Morton Hill Academy, where he quickly makes a friend --  Early Auden, a decidedly quirky schoolmate who rarely goes to class and lives almost entirely within his own mind. Jack doesn't pretend to understand most of what Early goes on about: a giant black bear of near-mythical proportions, timber rattlesnakes (which Early stubbornly believes live in Maine, despite common knowledge to the contrary), and a bizarre story based on the never-repeating sequences of the number pi.

But when Jack finds himself stranded at school break, teaming up with Early to go on an adventure seems like the next best choice. Jack figures it's a fools errand, seeing as Early is on a quest to find Pi, the hero of his numerically-inspired tale. Still, there's nothing better to do, so the two boys head up the Kennebec River in a rowboat, with no idea of what's in store: pirates, a volcano, an ancient woman and a giant, and of course that enormous mankiller of a bear.

The quest is what will hook readers, and it's where Vanderpool's talents as a storyteller really shine forth. Really this novel contains so many disparate elements, from the bear to the math to the rowing trip to a missing war hero. It's fascinating to watch how she weaves in the elements of Early's story about Pi, deftly bringing the mythology to life and throwing our heroes right down in the middle of it. Don't kid yourself, these boys are in real peril, and Vanderpool pulls no punches. But even as we're fleeing with them through the forest, Vanderpool's pulling at our heartstrings, making the emotional climax that much more stirring and involving.

Early Auden's a narrator I'll not soon forget, with his singular perspective and habits, and his ability to see stories in the patterns of numeric sequence. But though Jack's is a quieter voice, it's no less strong -- for its articulation of loss, and the way we're all found, in the chorus of those we draw near.

Navigating Early by Claire Vanderpool, published by Random House Kids
Ages 9-12
Source: ARC provided by the publisher; opinions, however, are all my own
Sample: "If I'd known what there was to know about Early Auden, that strangest of boys, I might have been scared off, or at least kept my distance like all the others. But I was new to the Morton Hill Academy for Boys, and to Cape Fealty, Maine. Fact was, I was new to anyplace outside of northeastern Kansas."
Highly recommended

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Teen Review - The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano

For my teen literature class last semester, I compiled a list of historical fiction titles as my end-of-term project. It was a fun list to put together, and I was shocked at how many historicals I'd read in recent memory. But what struck me about the list was how many books about certain eras there are. Take World War II, for instance -- one of the most fascinating periods in world history, for lots of reasons, and as you might expect there are tons of books on the subject. But look for teen books on other eras and you might be hard pressed to find anything at all, much less anything worth reading.

The 60's are one of those eras that tend to be somewhat untapped when it comes to teen lit. I can't figure out why -- maybe it's not long past enough to be truly historical for some? Not really sure, but it seems to me that I've read some really extraordinary books set during this turbulent timeframe. And it's a natural match to the turmoil of adolescence, with all the uncertainty and the shades of black and white fading into gray in so many areas of life. Seems like gold to a novelist, I would think.

And that's certainly true of the debut novel by Sonia Manzano, The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano. Manzano's name probably sounds familiar -- she's best known as the actress who plays Maria on Sesame Street. I'm not ashamed to admit that Sesame Street made a huge impact on me, as it did to so many of us babies of the 1970s. The second I read about Manzano's book, it went on my reading list, because, hello? It's Maria! And I'm so glad I jumped at it, because this affecting, emotional novel is truly a gem that deserves a spot on every reading list.

Evelyn Serrano used to be known as Rosa Maria, but when she turned 14 she decided a name change was in order. Besides, there are entirely two many Rosas and Marias in her Spanish Harlem neighborhood, and Evelyn doesn't want to blend in. She also doesn't want to be like her Mami, clinging to the ways things were in Puerto Rico, fashions and decorating and all of that. So she's breaking out on her own a bit, and things are going pretty well -- until her abuela turns up, Mami's mother from Puerto Rico. Abuela's not like any of the other grandmothers - she's sassy and brash and she knows things, political things, that Mami never wants to talk about. Evelyn's drawn to Abuela and her politics, and before long all three of the Serrano women are embroiled in activism, as the Young Lords, a protest group, make a stand in Evelyn's Spanish Harlem neighborhood.

Manzano may be on her first outing as a novelist here, but her talents for characterization are clearly well-honed. Evelyn is a believable and interesting narrator, one modern readers will identify with as she struggles to find her footing in a world of upheaval and uncertainty. The issues Evelyn faces -- issues of family, politics, love, and identity -- are universal, which makes their placement amidst this historical setting all the more powerful. Personally I didn't know much at all about the Young Lords, and I found Manzano's account not only stirring but informative. Much like Rita Williams-Garcia's stellar novel One Crazy Summer, and its depiction of the Black Panthers, Manzano's novel gives us a side of the conflict in Spanish Harlem that most of us may not fully understand. All this while keeping the action moving, an impressive feat for a debut novelist.

More than just a book about politics, though, Revolution is ultimately a book about a young girl, and the transformation she undergoes not only with how she sees herself but how she understands her friends and family. The relationship between Evelyn and her mother is a thorny one (much like that between Mami and Abuela), and Manzano shows us the whole thing, unstintingly. These are real people, which makes them all the more complex and interesting - and ultimately, believable.

I can't wait to read more from Manzano, and I'm thrilled that her recent Pura Belpre honor for this title will take her book to that much wider an audience.

The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano, published by Scholastic
Ages 12 up
Source: Library
Sample: "At the kitchen table sat a woman whose eyebrows were drawn on with a black makeup pencil. On her eyelids was a thick spread of eye shadow the same blue as my snow cone. The woman's lips were as pink as the inside of a seashell. And, oh, her hair -- it was as orange as Bozo's, puffed up and piled on top of her head like a wad of cotton candy. Mami was serving this strange lady a cup of coffee. / Mami spoke in a very tired way. 'Mija, this is your abuela.'"

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Secret Shortcut by Mark Teague {The Children's Bookshelf}

Not too long ago I read a review about a reprint of a children's book from way back when. In the blurb I read, the reviewer questioned whether or not modern-day children would be able to connect with the book, because it featured such unfamiliar scenes as children playing unattended in the yard, or walking to school without an adult.

The horror!

Seriously, though, I couldn't take that condescension. I think attitudes like that sell our kids incredibly short. Okay, so in the world today probably very few of us let our kids run around the neighborhood without a clue where they are -- yes, my generation has a whole lot of hypervigilence going on. But still, I think kids have the ability to extrapolate, and I daresay they won't chuck a book across the room if a character is listening to a phonograph or delivering newspapers sans grownups.

At least I hope they won't because if they do toss away books like that, kids would miss out on gems like today's pick, The Secret Shortcut by Mark Teague. We love Mark Teague for his integration of diversity into his books, seamlessly and consistently. In the book, Floyd and Wendell make their own way to school -- wait for it -- walking! Without their parents!

Are you still with me? Whew! So the two boys are chronically late, and their teacher Ms. Gernsblatt is getting fed up with their silly excuses about being detained by pirates and so forth. (Readers see the scurvy naves; Gernsblatt does not.) On Thursday the boys are determined not to get into trouble, leaving very early just to be sure. For good measure, Wendell suggests they try his secret shortcut. Floyd's a little dubious, but he gives it a whirl - and very soon the two boys are off into the most harrowing adventure of the whole week, complete with crocodiles, a rocky gorge, and swinging like monkeys from vine to vine.

The Secret Shortcut is such a fun read, with a whole lot of tongue-in-cheek humor that parents will love (kids might need to be clued in to the joke). Ultimately the boys do reach their destination, somewhat the worse for wear. Sprout's favorite part is when Floyd and Wendell land in a puddle of mud, a scene that's captured with Teague's trademark sense of whimsy. You can't really appreciate this one without looking at the pictures, as this is a title where illustrations and printed word join together to convey the whole message. Overall, this is a good choice for preschoolers who are beginning to get the sense that the world they see may not be the same as the one adults live in, after all.

If you want to spare your kids the trauma of reading about unchaperoned exploits on the way to school, pass this one by. Please. Because if you do, it's all the more likely to be there on the library shelf when we're in the mood for something lively and oh-so-imaginative.

The Secret Shortcut by Mark Teague, published by Scholastic
Ages 3-6
Source: Library
First lines: "On Monday, Wendell and Floyd were late for school. / They had nearly been captured by space creatures, they told their teacher. "Ridiculous," said Ms. Gernsblatt, and she warned them not to let it happen again."

This post is part of The Children’s Bookshelf, a weekly linky party with the goal of connecting parents with great books for their kids. Do you have a book review, literacy or book-related post that you think will be helpful for parents? If so, please add your link below.

NOTE: By linking up you are giving permission for any of the co-hosts to pin and/or feature a your photo on a future The Children’s Bookshelf post. Kindly link up to an individual post, not your blog’s homepage. The hosts reserve the right to delete any links to homepages, commercial links, repeat links or otherwise inappropriate links. Thank you for your understanding.

You can also follow The Children’s Bookshelf on Pinterest or visit TCB’s co-hosts: Sprout’s Bookshelf, What Do We Do All Day?, No Twiddle Twaddle, Smiling Like Sunshine, My Little Bookcase, The Picture Book ReviewMemeTales and Mouse Grows, Mouse Learns. You can find more details here.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Of Missed Opportunities

Do you ever feel slightly let down by a book? Like maybe what you hoped it would be was just not completely realized? This is a feeling I recognize in myself more and more frequently. Maybe it's that I'm getting older (big birthday this year - keeping it in perspective). Or maybe it's just that I've reached the point where I've read so many knockout titles that when a book doesn't go deliver as much as it could, I feel a bit cheated.

I find this happening a lot now that I'm reading kidlit pretty much exclusively (with the exception of textbooks, of course). There are a ton of fantastic kid's books on the shelves in libraries and bookstores these days. Overall the quality really rivals anything I remember from my own childhood. That's especially true of multicultural kidlit, where phenomenal authors like Rita Williams Garcia and Grace Lin and Christopher Paul Curtis and Pam Munoz Ryan turn out consistently top-notch books where diversity is interwoven seamlessly into the storyline. And so when I find a book that just doesn't go quite far enough, I feel a little like it's been a wasted opportunity.

I found this to be the case with one book in particular lately. I really hesitated writing about this book, because I wanted to like it, but just couldn't 100% embrace it, and I couldn't figure out why. The book in question is We Go Together by Todd Dunn, illustrated by Miki Sakamoto. Sprout nabbed this one on a recent library visit and I suspect that's mostly because of the cover - bright sunshine, animals and birds, a white-skinned girl and brown-skinned boy with huge smiles. What's not to like?

The text and illustrations are perfectly suited, as Sakamoto's cheerful figures and palette match Dunn's bounce rhymes very well. There's no real narrative here, just a depiction of things that go very well together - like moon and night, for instance, or string and kite. Each spread has a sly joke or whimsical touch that works quite nicely. Sometimes there's a double meaning included, like "We go together like elephant and trunk", which shows a chipper purple elephant bearing a small chest on his back. Cute, in all, and upbeat, which always makes for a nice addition to any reading session.

So what was it that bothered me? It took a while to figure out, but I finally narrowed it down to the last spread. Throughout the book we have a reasonable attempt to depict diversity - most of the spreads with more than one human character has multiple ethnicities represented. But on the last page, the text reads: "We go together, that's what we do. We go together because you love me and I love you!". Sweet, but here's where the missed opportunity comes in for me: the mother and daughter depicted on the page look almost exactly identical: white skin, rosy cheeks, brown hair turned up at the ends.

For me this is a misstep - the whole book is about things that go together, so why not use this spread as a chance to emphasize that things don't have to look alike to go together? This would have been a great opportunity to depict a transracial family, or at the very least two people who looked dissimilar. Maybe mom could have red curly hair and be hugging a boy with straight black hair? Would that be too much to ask? Couldn't the creators of the book have used this as a way to drive home the point to kids that belonging isn't about looking just exactly the same, but rather belonging has to do with the feelings mentioned in the page text?

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against this particular book, and it's not one that I would prevent Sprout from reading. It's cute enough, the illustrations are well-done, and it's something the author and illustrator should be very proud of creating. I also don't think that every single kids' book should cater to transracial families -- because come on, where's the reality in that? But I couldn't help but wonder how much stronger this little slice of kidlit could have been with just a tweak in the approach.

And here's where the missed opportunity comes in: because changing our environment and embracing more diversity is as simple as the decision to show the world families don't all have to match. The message of the title could have been that much more impactful, for my mind, with just a shift in this one editorial choice. These are the kinds of things that don't escape my notice, now that I'm parenting transracially. And you can be sure that if I'm noticing it, Sprout and all the other kids his age aren't letting these messages, however slight, pass them by. This kind of small choice strengthens the argument for kids on the playground who ask us questions like, "Are you his mom? Why don't you look like him?"

Listen, there are a host of reasons that parents and kids don't resemble one another, and adoption certainly isn't the only one. So let's be brave, kidlit creators: let's teach our kids that matching is more than just having the same hair color or wearing the same outfit. Let's throw them a curve and show them a daddy in a wheelchair or a mama and baby with different skin tones. Let's trust that kids can handle the challenge of seeing a parent and child for what they are, even when they don't look the same. Because that's an opportunity -- for thought, discussion, inclusion -- that no one should miss.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Series Spotlight: Messy Bessey by Patricia and Fredrick McKissack

A while ago a reader contacted me asking about series featuring children of color. Ever since then I've been on high alert for series that fit the bill - those that have a recurring character or characters but for which diversity isn't the driving force of the story. Rather, I'm looking for books where diversity is a side element, less the focus of the narrative than a characteristic. I've already written about a few, and featured a couple on a Pinterest board, and I've got several others in the wings (one of these days I'll have time to write all those blog posts I want to, right?).

One series that cropped up early on in my research was the Messy Bessey series by Patricia and Fredrick McKissack. Patricia McKissack is a familiar name in kidlit circles, and for good reason - she's written some outstanding picture books and novels, both with her husband and on her own, and has received both a Newbery Honor and two Coretta Scott King Awards. But her Messy Bessey series is a bit of a departure from her historicals and nonfiction titles, and it is for beginners so it may have flown under the radar of most of her readers.

And that's a shame, really, because this is a terrific series to share with kids just learning to read. Don't look for complex plots or intense character development; like most early readers, these titles drop readers right into the action and feature swift, satisfying resolutions. The series is filled with colorful and lively illustrations by Dana Regan, a point that's sure to draw kids in from the covers alone. Add to that the trope of a recurring character who finds herself always on the clean-up end of a big mess (usually her doing) and you have the makings for a charming little series for beginners.

I brought home three of the Messy Bessey titles to share with Sprout and he's insisted every time that we read all three together. Quite frankly I think he identifies most with the first title, Messy Bessey. In that outing, our heroine must clean up her room, which is a frightful disaster -- gum on the ceiling, for goodness sakes! (Sprout thinks that's hilarious). And being a typical kid, Bessey does just what she needs to do - clean up the surface and shove most of the debris into her closet. I love that - no goodie two-shoes ending here, which would be a total drag for kids anyway, as who loves a book where the main character does just what they are told?

The other two titles we read are Messy Bessey's Family Reunion, in which Bessey's extended family gets together for some fun at the park and then must clean up afterwards, and Messy Bessey's Holidays, which sees our girl baking cookies for three winter holidays. I especially love the last one, because it shows a rare nod to Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and Christmas all together. In that outing, we learn that different people celebrate differently, but everyone enjoys a colorful sugar cookie!

We've had great fun reading these three books together, and I know that we'll revisit the series when Sprout's ready for some easy readers of his own. Simple and readable, with relatable characters and situations, the Messy Bessey books fit the bill for parents and teachers looking to move beyond licensed characters and familiar faces for the beginner reader set. Though these are older titles, it's still worth checking out your library or used bookstore to find them - you never know what Bessey's up to, but you can be sure a mess isn't far behind!

Titles in the Messy Bessey Series (note: I couldn't find a complete series listing):
Messy Bessey
Messy Bessey's Holidays
Messy Bessey's Family Reunion
Messy Bessey's Closet
Messy Bessey's Garden
Messy Bessey and the Birthday Overnight
Messy Bessey's School Desk

Bonus: an interview with Patricia and Fredrick McKissack from Reading Rockets

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Flying by Kevin Luthardt {The Children's Bookshelf}

Imagination is pretty incredible, isn't it? At some point we all turn into stodgy adults, and our flights of fancy tend to be fewer and further between. But at Sprout's age, imagination is everything and can take you everywhere. The other day when I picked Sprout up from preschool, there were kids in various stages of creative play - some were taking a plane ride, one was the conductor on the railway, another was a dragon and still another a crocodile. Remember when you used to spend your day like that? Sigh.

Kevin Luthardt captures that spirit of imagination in his picture book Flying, a terrific library find for us recently. Like so many great books we've read over the past couple of years, this was one we stumbled on by accident - yet another reason we love to browse the shelves at our library or bookstore. Sprout pulled this one down himself and announced, "Hey, he looks like me!" upon seeing the cover (he's pretty right, too).

It's a simple story that begins with a little guy reading a book about birds, and imagining himself also soaring among the clouds. "Papa, why can't I fly?", he asks his dad, and Papa patiently explains. But soon the father and son get caught up in the fun of creative play. As Papa tosses his son up and down, runs with the kiddo on his shoulders, and generally recreates the experience of flight, the little guy can't help but be swept away to dip and weave with the birds. And you know what else? Papa's got himself flying too!

There's not a lot of text in this title, which for us means there's even more room to delve into the imagintive aspect. The pictures in this book are absolutely charming, cartoony yet realistic and bursting with energy and color. Little ones will recognize their own creative pursuits in the boy's imaginings. Best of all, the story ends with a chuckle for grownups, who will once again see echoes of their own kids in Luthardt's hero. This sweet and simple story is just right for even the smallest readers, and opens up so much possibility for talking about all the activities and places made real through our imagination!

Flying by Kevin Luthardt, published by Peachtree Publishers
Ages 3-5
Source: Library
Sample: "But. . . why don't I have wings? / Well, that's because you have ARMS!"

This post is part of The Children’s Bookshelf, a weekly linky party with the goal of connecting parents with great books for their kids. Do you have a book review, literacy or book-related post that you think will be helpful for parents? If so, please add your link below.

NOTE: By linking up you are giving permission for any of the co-hosts to pin and/or feature a your photo on a future The Children’s Bookshelf post. Kindly link up to an individual post, not your blog’s homepage. The hosts reserve the right to delete any links to homepages, commercial links, repeat links or otherwise inappropriate links. Thank you for your understanding.

You can also follow The Children’s Bookshelf on Pinterest or visit TCB’s co-hosts: Sprout’s Bookshelf, What Do We Do All Day?, No Twiddle Twaddle, Smiling Like Sunshine, My Little Bookcase, The Picture Book ReviewMemeTales and Mouse Grows, Mouse Learns. You can find more details here.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Chapter Book Review - Lone Bean by Chudney Ross

Ramona Quimby was one of my favorite fictional characters when I was a kiddo. Ramona was so relatable to me, with all the scrapes she was always getting herself into and the way she often acted first and thought about it later. Her adventures, and the entire dynamic of the Quimby family and friends, made a huge impact on me -- so much so, in fact, that when creating this blog I almost named it in honor of this wonderful series of books.

I'm thrilled that Ramona has endured and continues to capture the attention of a new generation. But I can't help but wonder what fictional characters of this era will fill the same niche, especially in a multicultural sense. So many of the books I loved are absent of any diversity at all - and so many wonderful books with diversity are "issues" books, about heavy thoughts but not always about the everyday reality of life as a middle grader. The Ramonas of this world should be not just Caucasian, but Latina, African American, Asian and biracial. We need characters of color not only for the girls and boys who look like them, but for the many who don't, and who need to see their own experiences lived by someone whose life is somewhat different.

For that reason, and many others, I was excited to get my hands on the debut children's novel from author Chudney Ross, Lone Bean. Among other activities, Ross is the owner of Books and Cookies, a combination children's bookstore and bakery in Santa Monica (this place is going on our must-visit list for sure!). And I suspect that her years as a bookseller and educator are what makes Lone Bean such a well-rounded portrait of a young girl's experiences. Bean is not only a relatable and realistic kiddo, she's also a lot of fun, very like Ramona and so many other classic characters.

The book opens as Bean Gibson begins third grade, which she's quite looking forward to. But almost right away, things go awry. First her best friend Carla has found someone new to hang out with over the summer. Then Bean tangles with the class bully, Terrible Tanisha. Then she has to be partners with Stanley, and everyone in the class thinks she likes him. And then her dad announces that Bean has to start music lessons, on the piano of all things! It seems nothing will ever go right in third grade.

Throughout the story, Bean navigates her way through social mishaps and conflicts with her parents and siblings, all the while finding her place in the new order of things. Bean's outlook on life is one that many kids will relate to; Ross gives us a heroine who is by no means perfect, but who makes mistakes and learns from them (eventually). Bean has a great support system in place, and it's nice to see a story where the main character tests her limits but never doubts her family's love for her. Eventually all the drama sorts itself out -- not exactly how Bean would have liked it to, but in a way that's great nonetheless. Kind of like real life, I'd say.

Next time you're thinking about handing your kiddo a classic like Ramona Quimby, Age 8, reach a little further and consider a book like Lone Bean instead. With characters who are familiar and yet unique, this is a novel worth reading, and I for one am hoping for a sequel -- looking forward to more from this spirited girl and her creator!

Lone Bean by Chudney Ross, published by Amistad Books
Ages 9-12
Source: Library
Sample: "I'm the youngest of three girls and we're all named after flowers. Mom said she wanted her own bouquet, but I think she got a thorn bush with my sisters because they are m-e-a-n MEAN! I have a flower name too, of course, but it is long and hard to spell and terrible. I'll never tell anyone what it is. Mom and Dad sometimes call me by my real name when I'm in big trouble, but otherwise I'm just called Bean."

Friday, March 1, 2013

Happy Read Across America Day!

It's Dr. Seuss Day at Sprout's preschool today in observation of Read Across America Day. He was so excited to dress up like his favorite Dr. Seuss character, the Lorax! ("I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.")

What are you doing to celebrate Dr. Seuss's birthday?